Container Gardening: Big Benefits in Small Spaces

The interest in growing our own produce increases daily. Everyone can garden, even apartment dwellers and those with limited outdoor space. The Sow, Grow, Eat and Keep series is helping Iowans learn to grow their own food at home. This week’s “Sow, Grow, Eat and Keep” video from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach addresses how to start a container garden to grow tasty foods at home. 

Container gardens offer many benefits including:

  • Requires less space than a traditional garden.
  • Can be done on a porch or patio.
  • Can be placed at a height that reduces bending.

There are many ways to create a container garden. You can use a variety of flower pots or larger containers, such as large plastic buckets, or build raised bed gardens. Almost any vegetable can be grown in a container garden. The best plants are those that are smaller and bushier and do not require staking. Check out the ISU Extension and Outreach publications Container Vegetable Gardening and Container Gardening FAQs.

ISU Extension and Outreach will continue hosting weekly “Sow, Grow, Eat and Keep” quickinars. The quickinars offer 5-15 minute online lessons of seasonally appropriate topics for the garden, food preparation and food preservation. Some upcoming topics include:

  • Cool and warm season crops (lettuce, spinach, peas)
  • Freezing produce
  • Freezer jams (strawberry)
  • Scouting for garden pests
  • Weeding and watering basics
  • Produce food safety
  • Canning produce

For additional resources and publications, visit the Sow, Grow, Eat, and Keep website. Send your food or garden questions to

Written by guest bloggers Ruth Litchfield and Sarah Francis. Doctors Litchfield and Francis are faculty in the ISU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

flower pot

Growing Herbs

Flat parsley growing in rows in the garden bed

In the spirit of gardening, today I am going to continue our series and talk about growing herbs. Growing herbs at home can save you money because buying fresh and dried herbs at the store can add up quickly. Growing herbs is something that started as a fluke for me and has turned into a passion.

I bought a sad looking oregano plant at a sale the first year we were in our home. I planted it just outside the kitchen window in a dry, empty patch of dirt where nothing grew. Now, ten years later, that oregano plant is still alive and thriving. Over the years we have added and removed herbs from my little herb garden. This year we will have oregano and chives (which come back every year) and basil, dill, and parsley (which my son and his grandpa started from seeds).

A little herb garden is so much fun for children. I love to watch my children plant and care for the herbs, smell them, taste them, and add them to recipes. If you do not have space for an herb garden, consider planting an herb container. Place it near your kitchen so you have easy access when you need to add flavor to a recipe.

A great thing about herbs is that they are low maintenance. Plant them, or place containers, in a sunny spot because herbs love sun. Make sure your soil, or your container, drains water well because herbs do not like to sit in wet soil. Water them when the soil is dry to the touch.

Best of luck with your herb garden!

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Let’s Grow Tomatoes!

Cherry tomatoesLast week Christine shared about how she grows greens in containers on her patio. This week I am going to share about my gardening experiences with tomatoes. My family and I have a pretty large garden in our back yard. We usually fill about half of it with tomato plants because we love to eat them fresh and make them into tomato juice to enjoy all year long.

This “Tomatoes” growing guide is a great read if you are interested in trying some tomatoes in your garden this year or if you would like to improve the health and yield of your tomato plants. Here are some practical tips I have picked up as I have experimented with growing tomatoes in my own garden:

  • Choose the right varieties of tomatoes for my garden. This one takes a little trial and error. I have found that Better Boy and Super Sweet 100 tomatoes grow best in my garden.
  • Plant tomatoes between May 15th and June 1st. After May 15th, I should be able to avoid frost killing my plants. If I get my plants in before June 1st, I can enjoy a longer growing season and a higher yield.
  • Use tomato cages. Large, tall tomato cages allow the plants to grow big, healthy, and strong. They are also easier to manage than tomatoes that are staked up or tomatoes that are allowed to grow along the ground.

Thankfully, you do not need a large garden to enjoy growing fresh tomatoes at home.  Depending on the plant size, tomatoes can be grown in 2-4 gallon containers. The Container Vegetable Gardening guide gives ideas for the variety of tomato that would be best for your home.

I hope you can get outside and enjoy gardening this year!

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Spring Produce

Each spring I love watching the plants pop up out of the ground.  Some days I feel like I can see the plants growing in my yard.  Now that we are in April, more and more fresh spring produce is popping up in the stores and in gardens.

Buying fruits and vegetables that are in season gets you the tastiest produce for the least cost.  Here are some fruits and vegetables that are in season in the spring:

  • Asparagus – snap off the woody ends and grill, steam, or roast.
  • Broccoli – cut into florets and eat raw, steam, or roast.
  • Rhubarb – eat only the reddish stalk; find out more on the AnswerLine Blog.
  • Snow peas – eat raw or add to stir-fry.
  • Spinach – eat in a salad, top off a sandwich, or add to a smoothie.
  • Strawberries – eat on their own or as a topping to your favorite dessert.

I hope you get to enjoy some fresh spring produce this week!

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Growing and Using Fresh Herbs

basils2I have had good luck growing culinary herbs in pots on my sunny deck. I have also grown them in the garden in well-drained soil. I enjoy being able to experiment with fresh herbs in my cooking. Plus, you can buy herb plants for about the same price as you buy one bunch at the store.

Below are some brief tips on growing and using herbs. If you want more information, check out From Garden to Table: Harvesting Herbs for Healthy Eating by North Dakota State University


Common Name

Growing Suggestions & Tips Ideas for Using in Cooking
Basil Likes sunny but sheltered spots. Space 8-12” apart. Grows well in containers. Good border plant. Dark green leaves have sweet flavor with mild pungency. Tomatoes; in fresh pesto; pasta sauce, peas, zucchini
Mint (including spearmint and peppermint) Has tendency to spread invasively in outdoor gardens. Purple flowers. Refreshing odor & flavor. Often used as a garnish. Roots easily from stem cuttings. Used with carrots, fruit salads, parsley, peas, desserts, spring rolls. salads, sauces
Oregano Grows well in containers. Can also propagate from cuttings or division of the mature plant. tomato dishes, beef, spaghetti, clams, soups (bean, minestrone, and tomato), beans, eggplant, and mushrooms
Parsley Grows well in a container. Keep trimmed so plant does not develop flowers. salads, vegetables, pastas
Rosemary Grows well in a container. chicken, fish, lamb, pork, roasted potatoes, soups, stews, tomatoes

parsleyHerbs should be purchased or picked close to the time you plan to use them. If you grow herbs in your own garden, the best time to harvest herbs is in the morning after the dew is off but the sprigs are fresh. This helps ensure the best flavor and storage quality.

Fresh herbs can be stored in an open or perforated plastic bag in your refrigerator crisper drawer for a few days. If you have more herbs than you can eat, put them in bouquets either alone or as part of a flower bouquet. Fresh herbs can also be dried and frozen.

Peggy Signature

Get Your Updated Garden Publications

It is almost time to plant the garden. You do not need a big space, container gardens and small plots (like 4’x4’ plot) will produce enough for you to enjoy that fresh garden taste. A couple of years ago, I blogged about “My Top Ten Reasons to Garden”. I skimmed them this morning and they are still on target.

The Iowa State University Horticulture department recently updated several publications with all the new cultivars, for the home gardener. They are available to download or you can purchase them from our store.

Container Vegetable Gardening

PM 0870B

Includes information regarding: container construction, size, and capacity; crop selection and planting density; summer care (location, watering, fertilization, tomato tips). Lists suggestions for 12 container garden vegetables (more than 40 cultivars) including: carrots, cucumbers, peppers, spinach, and tomatoes.  Gives a recipe for soiless potting mix.

Small Plot Vegetable Gardening

PM 0870A

This publication outlines recommendations and techniques for growing quality vegetables in a limited space, including planning, site selection, summer care, and space saving techniques. Lists suggestions for 16 garden vegetables (more than 50 varietals) including: cucumbers, green beans, peppers, pole beans, spinach, tomatoes, summer and winter squash, and others.

Planting a Home Vegetable Garden

PM 0819

Provides basic how-to information, including seedbed preparation, seed selection and sowing, and using transplants. Chart gives planting guidelines for 37 vegetables.

If you have a question, check out the Yard and Garden FAQs Home Page.  The database has answers to over 750 commonly asked questions on a wide range of gardening topics.

My Top 10 Reasons to Garden

Little girl standing in a vegetable garden with spade in her hand, second little girl by a scooter with rake and shovelIt’s SPRING. Warm weather makes me start planning for my flower and vegetable garden.  Why?

  1. Health — Growing your own makes it easier to get the fruits and vegetables needed for good health. Kids involved in growing or preparing fruits and vegetables are more likely to eat them.
  2. Exercise — Gardening provides both cardio and aerobic exercise. Studies show that an hour of moderate gardening can burn up to 300 calories for women, almost 400 calories for men. Mowing the grass equals a vigorous walk, bending and stretching while planting compares to an exercise class, and hauling plants and soil is like weightlifting.
  3. Taste – Nothing matches the taste of green beans, tomatoes, basil, zucchini, or peppers picked fresh from the garden.
  4. Satisfaction — A weed less, mulched garden gives me a sense of accomplishment.
  5. Learning — The more I learn about plants and gardening, the more I want to know. Problems with insects or spots on leaves make me want to find the cause and learn how to keep plants healthy.
  6. Family time — Time spent planting, weeding, and harvesting with family is filled with talk and laughter.
  7. Friendship — Gardening expands your social circle. Whether it’s someone who lives down the street or halfway around the world on the Internet, gardeners love to talk about plants. Surplus tomatoes, a bouquet, or an extra plant are gifts to share with friends and neighbors.
  8. Creativity — Gardening provides an outlet for the artist in all of us, whether it’s planting a bed of perennials or arranging flowers in a vase.
  9. Beauty and love of nature — I love the colors, shapes, textures and smells of flowers.  Having flowers in my home gives me joy.
  10.   Links to the farm — Gardening takes time, effort and knowledge.  After lots of work, plants can be destroyed by hail, disease, or animals. I have a great deal of respect for those who farm for a living.

Notice anything missing in my top ten reasons to garden?  Saving money.  That’s because gardens don’t always save money. The article, “Can a Vegetable Garden Save You Money”?  by Cindy Haynes, Extension Horticulturist, gives tips to help you save money on your garden.  It’s from 2009, but the message still applies.

-pointers from Peggy

Organic, locally grown,…are they the same?

Consumers used to ask me about products labeled for specific nutritional attributes such as sodium free, trans fat free and rich in omega 3’s. Now, they are asking if there is a nutritional advantage of organic foods.

The nutritional value of food depends on the soil in which it was grown, cultivar of the plant, growing conditions (weather), degree of maturity at harvest, handling after harvest, and time spent in transport or storage to name a few. Research suggests organic food production does not produce nutritionally superior food. It is more likely that ‘locally grown’ food may have a nutritional advantage because it isn’t picked prior to maturity, transported, and stored–factors that decrease nutritional value. Bottom line: organic and locally grown are not the same; the primary advantage of organic food production is not nutritional value, but environmental friendliness.

Does this influence my grocery shopping habits? Sure does! I am not inclined to purchase organic foods, which are typically more expensive, for better nutritional value. Instead, I look for nutritious foods by visiting my local farmer’s market where I can support the local economy, and being physically active in my garden.

If you would like to see reviews related to this issue, check out the USDA website  and Institute of Food Technology website .

              -contributed by Ruth Litchfield

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